Top five 802.11ac routers: Time to upgrade

CNET editor Dong Ngo picks the five best Wi-Fi routers that support the latest standard, 802.11ac. It's time to upgrade!

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
4 min read

It's now safe to say that the new 802.11ac (or AC, for short) Wi-Fi standard, currently still in draft, is the wave of the future. Just recently Apple announced its own AC-enabled base stations, and the Wi-Fi Alliance also announced its first certification testing program for the new standard.

The biggest advantage of the new Wi-Fi standard is that it offers up to three times, and even more in the future, the speed of the existing 802.11n (Wireless-N) standard; and, with Beamforming technology, it offers better Wi-Fi coverage. It's also backward-compatible.

Since 802.11ac is available only in the 5GHz frequency band, all supporting routers are true dual-band and offer 802.11n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band. This guarantees that they work with all existing Wi-Fi clients, regardless of standard.

That said, there's nothing to lose if you want to upgrade to 802.11ac now, even if you don't yet have an 802.11ac-enabled client, such as the new MacBook Air. Here is a list of the top AC routers on the market. All of these support the current top-tier three-stream setup to offer Wi-Fi speeds of up to 1.3Gbps.

This list is sorted in the order the products were reviewed with the most recent review on top, and will be updated as more devices are reviewed.

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Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station
The new AirPort Extreme is the latest 802.11ac router on the market and the first, together with the new Time Capsule, from Apple that supports the new Wi-Fi standard. The new router is very different from its predecessors, boasting an entirely new design that's much more compact and very pretty.

Other than the support for 802.11ac, it's very similar to the previous model in terms of features. It still offers just three LAN ports (as opposed to the four that most routers have), one USB 2.0 port, and the same limited number of features. In my testing, it was very fast, though not the fastest. In all, its new design and performance are enough for Apple fans to justify its hefty $199 price. Read the full review of the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station.

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D-Link DIR-868L
The DIR-868L is the second 802.11ac router from D-Link, and it's much better than the previous one, the DIR-865L. The new router has a vertical cylindrical design, which was first available in the DIR-645. It looks more like a computer speaker or a Thermos than a router.

In my testing it had very fast performance and solid Wi-Fi coverage. You can also manage your home network via the Internet with a mobile app or Mydlink portal. The DIR-868L can only work as a router, however, and not as a media bridge or a standalone access point. Read the full review of the D-link DIR-868L.

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Trendnet TEW-812DRU
The TEW-812DRU is the first 802.11ac router from Trendnet and currently the most affordable one on the market, costing around $150. This is a straightforward, simple router that offers very fast Wi-Fi speeds and great coverage. Its only shortcomings are the lack of wall-mounting options and slow network storage speeds when coupled with a USB external storage device. Read the full review of the Trendnet TEW-812DRU.

Dong Ngo

Asus RT-AC66U
The Asus RT-AC66U is the first router from Asus that supports 802.11ac. It was very fast in my testing. At launch, the RT-AC66U suffered from some performance issues, but it has now joined the ranks of the best routers on the market, thanks to updated firmware.

The latest firmware also brings the router's AirCloud feature, which uniquely enables remote users to access and stream data not only from an external hard drive connected to the router but also from other computers connected to the router. This means you can easily turn any regular computer into a media-streaming, file-hosting server for both local and remote users, even those using mobile devices. The RT-AC66U is also the only router on this list that has a built-in VPN server, and its two USB ports can be used for a lot more than just hosting storage devices and printers. Read the full review of the Asus RT-AC66U 802.11ac router.

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Netgear R6300
The Netgear R6300 is the first 802.11ac router from Netgear and is one of the first on the market to support the new standard. Like the Asus, it has two USB 2.0 ports and offers lots of features. It has a rather bulky and low-key design, although it does have a lot to offer, including a robust Web interface and mobile app-enabled Netgear Genie firmware. Read the full review of the Netgear R6300 router.

Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these routers head-to-head.